Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the difference between text and context in literature?

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Text refers to the words which are written, while context is the surroundings of the text, whether it is created within the text or describing the situation of the author's life in which the text was written.

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A text refers to a specific body of words that constitute a particular piece of writing. A text can be very short, such as a sonnet, but is considered a text because it is complete in and of itself.

Every text, however, has a context, which is the culture, setting, and situation in which it is produced. No text is created uninfluenced by the world around it: even the driest scientific studies emerge from what a larger society has decided is the research most valuable to fund.

At one time, literary analysis, in what was called New Criticism, focused simply on the words in a text. A person doing a New Critical reading, for example, would take a poem such as "Ozymandias" and simply look at its language and literary devices, such as irony, without worrying about its context. However, knowing that its author, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was considered a political radical (his ideas would be considered moderate today, but he was a radical in his time period) enhances our understanding of the poem as does the knowledge that it reflected a passion for antiquities gripping England at that time period.

Too much context can overwhelm a text, which was one reason the New Critics broke away from it; however, too little can rob a text of meaning.

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Text is the actual content of a work, while context is the historical, social, biographical, or artistic background of the work itself. An example of this understanding of text and context would be that while the novel A Christmas Carol is the text, the history of the so-called Poor Laws forms an important historical context for the story's themes regarding charity and the poor. By understanding the context (that is, the history of the Poor Laws, what they were, how the public responded to them, etc.), one gains an enriched understanding of the text itself. Another example would be that The Great Gatsby is a text, while the Roaring Twenties, which provides the setting of the novel, is an important context when it comes to understanding the motivations of the characters and how the time period in which they lived shaped their decisions and actions.

Note that text does not just refer to written works such as novels. Scholars have also used the term text to refer to movies or graphic novels, both mediums which work in visuals more than words. For example, the movie Casablanca can be seen as a text with World War II (both the setting of the story and the production period of the movie) providing the proper context to understanding what the text is trying to say about neutrality, heroism, and wartime.

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These two terms differ in a number of ways, but on a basic level they can be said to differ in terms of scope and specificity. Text is a highly specific term and refers to the written word as such. Context, as a term, can be employed on various levels within a work of literature and outside a work of literature. 

In literary studies, the term, "text," refers solely to the written word on the page. When discussing text, we are discussing that actual and literal words used by a writer. Thus, when we use the term we are not discussing what is implied (which would be subtext). We are instead only referring to what is explicitly and physically on the page. 

While text can imply and text can express, our reference to text nonetheless is always to the actual words that are being interpreted to imply and express. An analogy for this situation might be to compare text to a painting. The painting is a physical object capable of communicating ideas and emotions to an audience, but when we talk about the painting we are always referring to its physical being, its surface and actual existence. We interpret that physical object and thereby discern its meaning. 

Text can also be used in generalization to describe a book (as in, "let us turn to the text itself for an answer"). 

Context refers to a situation (or surroundings). This term can describe the situation created within a narrative (or within a text). If a character is stranded on a desert island after a boat has sunk, we would describe this state of affairs as the context. 

Also, context can describe the situation within which a book has been written. A novel written after WWII concerning relations between the U.S. and Russia has a specific cultural and political context that provides a framework wherein we can discern some particular meaning(s) in the text. 

"Understanding the context in which a work of literature was produced often leads to a deeper understanding of the work itself; for instance, understanding the social and economic position of women in the early Nineteenth Century can provide a greater insight into the characterizations of women in Jane Austen’s novels" (eNotes).

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The text would be the words on a page. The context is the meaning that is conveyed through setting, characters, theme, etc.

It is out of this world is simply a statement of words. but when you add the context, the setting, the characters, etc., it beomes a story with meaning.

My sister cooked some collards and they were out of this world. Either they were delicious or terrible.

Either the reader thinks the collards were heavenly or horrible.

To simply say the collards were out of this world is not enough. The context conveys meaning.

Another example is I couldn't eat another bite. This could be taken literally in that the character is full or the character may be stating that he or she does not desire to eat another bite. Text taken out of context is unclear and often misinterpreted.

In literature, "context" is more complex than these examples and means: "the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, [or] situation."

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